Innovations in Irrigation

Water. It's one of life's most important essentials. It's an ingredient of health for all living things. Because of its importance, history has witnessed countless new methods and devices for harnessing and distributing it — from carved-out gourds to aqueducts to indestructible, space-age drinking bottles. As modern societies have cultivated lawns, gardens, golf courses and other sites requiring supplemental irrigation, many additional new technologies have been developed to make it easier and more efficient to apply water where it's needed.

In our business, it wasn't all that long ago when manual quick-couplers or block systems with brass sprinklers and valves were considered “state-of-the-art” achievements. As the commercial irrigation industry grew and we all learned from our experiences, manufacturers continually saw the need for further improvements. They realized the value of building sprinklers and valves out of durable plastic, and it's a concept that changed everything. When someone had the idea to bury a few wires and hook them up to a clock, we suddenly had the convenience of a timed automatic system.

Many of our industry's major innovations were originally created as the result of specific application necessities. For example, the first valve-in-hand sprinklers were developed at stockyards in California for dust control. Irrigation contractors in Florida needed system automation, but lightning strikes were such a problem for them that it led to the development of hydraulic actuation.

The list of such inspired improvements could go on and on. Sometimes a better piece of irrigation hardware was simply born out of common sense, such as adding rock and debris screens, or as many manufacturers have done recently, designing sprinkler heads that can easily adjust for radius, arc or trajectory — often with just your fingertips.


Several irrigation system improvements and product innovations continue to get better. The earliest gear-driven rotors proved to be a big step toward progress, but they were a far cry from the reliable, sophisticated models available to us today. Important enhancements such as pressure regulation and surge protection are also much further along than the industry could have imagined several years ago when those ideas were introduced.


While we have all benefited from many mechanical and electrical improvements during our careers, the irrigation industry is now racing into unprecedented technological realms, thanks to continuing advances in computers, satellites, wireless communications and other leading-edge electronic developments.

PC-based central control systems and specialized software enable a golf course superintendent to manage and operate an entire irrigation system from his office. With comprehensive control systems such as Toro's SitePro, a superintendent can optimize his golf course's water distribution right down to a single head, and then review and catalog all programming for instant accessibility. Through graphic displays on the computer screen, the SitePro controller can adjust sprinkler run times, engage rain holds, initiate starts and syringes and more, all with just a click of a mouse. Field-status monitors tell which satellites and sprinklers are running and which are on hold, all in real-time updates.

Another water-management software option is Rain Bird's SiteControl Version 2.0, which is the latest version of its single-site commercial central control product line. Version 2.0 features RainWatch for SiteConrol, a new water-management tool that works with up to four Site Rain Cans to automatically pause and adjust run times according to measured rainfall. This software was built for single, continuous site applications, and is designed for grounds care professionals managing areas such as sports fields, cemeteries, small colleges, resorts, individual city parks or property developments.

Managing a network of irrigation controllers — on a single site or multiple sites — requires time-consuming work and setting up and synchronizing controller operations can take hours of time. Plus, every time you need to make a program change, or need to shut down a system for a special event, you have to physically travel to the controller. With Hunter Industries' Irrigation Management and Monitoring System (IMMS), these hassles are removed because you can monitor and control the entire system from the comfort of your office. Additionally, by communicating with localized sensors, the system can alert you to potential service problems such as a ruptured pipe or sprinklers that have been broken by vandals. You can modify controller schedules in real time, taking into account daily and seasonal weather conditions and weather forecasts, shut down all systems during rain automatically or with just a few keystrokes, or increase watering for thirsty annuals during hot days. Any and all changes can be made to each controller's program in a matter of seconds.


Better yet, easy-to-use PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) have further revolutionized irrigation control and management capabilities. These are hand-held control devices, which can be carried onto the course, that enable you to activate single heads or zones remotely as needed. In addition to convenience and efficiency, the portability of such a controller allows for instant visual confirmation that the water is going exactly where it should.

One popular hand-held control device is another Toro product known as PRISM, which stands for Pocket PC Remote Irrigation System Manager. With PRISM, if a superintendent walking his course notices that specific irrigation adjustments are needed — such as a certain area being too wet or too dry — he can simply program the changes on the PRISM device in his hand, rather than having to write notes or commit the adjustments to memory. Then, when the superintendent returns to his office later, he simply connects the PRISM device to his computer to program the changes into the central control system, which updates the information automatically.


Many computerized irrigation programs incorporate GPS (Global Positioning System) information or aerial photography to create a scaled map and interactive picture of the golf course directly onto a monitor or hand-held screen. In the case of a PRISM unit, it actually displays a computerized map of each hole of the golf course, indicating the location of sprinkler stations, along with trees, bunkers and cart paths. By having a map of the hole and seeing where the sprinkler heads are, you simply point the device at a sprinkler and tap it on the screen for activation at that spot.

These kinds of capabilities would have seemed like science fiction to many of us not too long ago, but using computers and wireless controls to operate a system in the field has now become almost standard practice.


There's no question that technological breakthroughs in irrigation are driven by necessity, and we're now facing a new era of further innovations: the growing crisis in water availability. This sensitive issue is changing the way our industry works. As end-user demands and legislated restrictions increase, irrigation contractors and superintendents must find new ways to use water more efficiently.

The industry is already seeing many exciting innovations in this area, such as a new water-saving invention involving a relatively simple concept: a sprinkler that can spray either part-circle patterns or true full circles with the same head. In some parts of the country, golf courses must eliminate or dramatically reduce watering of roughs during drought periods; with such an easily adjusted sprinkler that doesn't require you to change out the drives, you can quickly redirect sprays away from roughs. That immediately reduces water consumption with minimal time and effort.

An example of water-saving technology can be found in the U-Series plastic nozzles from Rain Bird Corporation. Utilizing 30 percent less water, the innovative U-Series features the first plastic nozzle with a second orifice for efficient close-in watering. In operation, the water flowing from both orifices combines to form a continuous water stream. This produces more uniform distribution than single-orifice nozzles and, in particular, eliminates the need to overwater in order to cover areas around spray heads.

Another why-didn't-they-think-of-that-sooner innovation is an easier trajectory adjustment on certain new sprinklers. A lot of water on golf courses is wasted when it gets thrown up into the wind or into low-hanging tree branches, but with a quick-adjust option to simply lower the spray angle, that water is directed onto the turfgrass where it belongs.

Hunter Industries uses this technology in its HCV Check Valve. This valve addition to any Hunter sprinkler product prevents the loss of water from system pipes in sloped areas by eliminating the low head drainage after the irrigation cycle is completed. The HCV adjusts to compensate for elevation changes up to 32 feet.

If you are looking for longer distance with your irrigation system, Rain Bird Golf Division has introduced the Eagle 1150 rotor. A part-circle model, the closed-case valve-in-hand Eagle 1150 provides an easy solution for quick coupler system upgrades and is designed for larger, single-row or double row irrigation systems with sizeable spacing. Using the largest nozzle, the rotor can throw 114 feet at 110 psi, regulated.


On the other end of the technology spectrum, some water-saving innovations are extremely high-tech. One example is the Network VP Satellite from The Toro Company, which provides a level of modular flexibility and programmability never seen before in a single control unit. To meet a golf course's watering needs, the Network VP (which stands for Versatile Platform) is available with 16 to 64 stations. Each of the 64 stations can be used to control 64 programs, and each program can be any one of these three types: a basic program with single daily stop/start times; an advanced program offering multiple start times and greater flexibility; or a grow-in program that executes start times in a continuous loop, to keep seed wet while germinating.

That amount of programming versatility allows you to fine-tune your irrigation schedule by adjusting precipitation levels for such factors as sun or shade, slope of terrain, type of vegetation and so on — all to distribute available water more carefully and accurately.

Hunter Industries' top-of-the-line modular ICC Controller lets you configure the unit to the number of stations you need, from 8 to 48 stations, simply by adding modules in 8-station increments. The ICC offers water management from a variety of features, most notably cycle and soak capability by station, which allows run times to be divided into repeat cycles to minimize runoff, and seasonal adjustment which features one-button reprogramming for changes in weather conditions.


In addition to using less water, other industry improvements have been created to save energy. A familiar case in point is VFD (variable frequency drive) control-in-pump stations. Compared to fixed-speed pumps of the past, the common VFD models save thousands of dollars a year on energy costs.


The future promises even bigger and better innovations. Perhaps the next major step will be robotics or solar power. Some new irrigation control systems include radio receivers that continually gather precipitation and humidity data from weather stations to determine how much moisture is available to a specific site. More corrosion-resistant components are being developed to accommodate lower-quality water that's high in salinity. Regardless of what the next development may turn out to be, this is an exciting time for all of us in the irrigation business and for those depending on us.

George Fisher is sales manager, for golf irrigation, Smith Turf and Irrigation (Charlotte, N.C.).

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